In Parque Estadual do Jalapão, we climb Sahara-style dunes, dive in waterfalls, bathe in springs surrounded by Buriti palms, and stare at dark red rock formations with names like Cathedral Hill. The area is popular with off-roaders, mountain bikers, and hikers.
Brazil, is a place blessed by nature and right in the heart of this country, in Tocantins, is a natural paradise of unique beauty: the Jalapão, a main route for people who practice eco-tourism. It is impossible to find an equal scenario anywhere in the world.
Jalapão’s region is a place of unending discoveries.
Set aside at least three days for the journey. You deserve this emotion.
The Jalapão is an arid region dotted with oases. It is dominated by scrubland vegetation similar to the savannahs, where waterfalls, rivers with crystal clear waters, rapids and large plateaus make the landscape.
It is in this scenario where the dunes of golden sand, up to 30 meters high, stand out, giving the place its name: desert of Jalapão. It would be a desert, if Jalapão were not also a paradise of waters and a place where the presence of flowers and exotic animals jumps to the eye. A call for contemplation and adventure.
Jalapão is 300 km from Palmas, capital city of the state of Tocantins with borders to the states, Maranhão, Piaui and Bahia. Vegetation is a mixture of scrubland and savanna, with rivers, waterfalls and plateaus. The climate is warm/hot (about 30ºC during the day, cooling to around 18ºC at night).
Jalapão occupies an area of 34 thousand kilometers, involving eight counties (Lagoa do Tocantins, Novo Acordo, Lizarda, Mateiros, Ponte Alta do Tocantins, Santa Tereza do Tocantins and São Félix do Tocantins).
The location has two options for access from Palmas. One is through highway TO 255, until Ponte Alta do Tocantins. The other, is through TO-020, which connects Novo Acordo to Palmas, 108 kilometers away. Click here for a detailed map.
Although you can do it in a normal car, it is advisable to take a 4×4 car. To go to the main attractions, except for the dunes which are accessed by a soft sand road, it is a dirt road of such a hard gravel that the stones may hole the tire of your car. If you leave the main road, then you’ll stall with a normal car.
Gas stations are rare, but at each 200km you will find one. It’s expensive, but it is dangerous to carry gasoline and very annoying also. Here goes the right tip: fill the tank at the cities of Ponte Alta do Tocantins, Mateiros, São Felix and Novo Acordo.
Jalapão is kind of an oval circuit of approximately 500km. For not getting lost, keep on the road with electric light posts. Only leave this road to go to the attractions of the place. There is no mistake.
If you’re going by car, make a good check up on it, because if it wrecks, you’re f….. The place is absolutely empty. The road connects nothing to nowhere, and there, 100km is considered a short distance for anything.
If you do not want to drive yourself, you can always enjoy an organised trip. Various travel agencies offer 4×4 trips. Some even have addapted trucks with seats on top, just like tourist buses in London or Rome.
It is worthwhile to take a tent with you, but it is possible to stay at simple bedrooms or lodgings in the cities of Ponte Alta, Mateiros, São Felix and Novo Acordo or in the middle of nothing, like the Lodging of Jalapão, that is between Ponte Alta do Tocantins and Mateiros.
There are simple restaurants in Ponte Alta, Mateiros, São Felix and Novo Acordo. You won’t feel at Club Med, but Jalapão has food. Anyway, bring much water and some food as a guarantee.
Take along plenty of water, a flashlight with extra batteries, sun screen and mosquito repellent, and a good First Aid kit. Also take your swimming goggles.
Best pousadas in Jalapao:
- Ponte Alta: Veredas das Águas
- Mateiros: Santa Helena and Panela de Ferro
- Sao Felix: Capim Dourado
These pousadas are very basic but offer air conditioning and a private bathroom. Prices are equal to room prices of 4 star hotels elsewhere in the world.
When to go
Although the area can be visited all year round, the people from Tocantins agree that it is best visited during the dry season (Jun-Sep). Rainfall does not make the trip more difficult.
Do not go during local holidays. Even try to go during weekends.
The average temperature is 30°C or 86°F.
Every adventurer who goes to Jalapão has a certain destination: rafting on the Rio Novo rapids. But you need not be experienced or even able to swim to face the sometimes turbulent, sometimes calm waters. You should only be equipped with safety accessories supplied by the tourist agencies.
There are two options. The first is the long distances that take up to four days, where you get to experience high level difficulty waterfalls and make stops in small beaches of white sand that build up on the banks of the river. The second option, which is much faster and chosen by most tourists, is a descent that lasts three hours (six kilometers).
The best season to practice rafting is from May to September, the period of drought in Tocantins State. It is at this time also that the roads with access to Jalapão offer better traffic conditions.
Golden grass only sprouts in the paths of Jalapão. It’s the thin stem with intense metallic shine that is used by local women, with gifted hands, to turn the grass into a variety of craft items: bags, earrings, bracelets, hats, mandalas (wall-hangings), baskets and various objects of decoration. These pieces with unique beauty have crossed Tocantins’ borders, winning markets in all Brazilian states and also abroad.
The art of working with golden grass was taught to local women by Mrs. Miúda, a matriarch of the town of Mumbuca, municipality of Mateiros. Previously, the technique was passed by indigenous who inhabited the region to Mrs. Miúda’s grandmother and then to her mother.
Today, the techniques of golden grass handicraft are still taught from generation to generation in the village of Mumbuca and also in the cities of Mateiros, Ponte Alta, Novo Acordo, Santa Tereza, Lagoa do Tocantins and in Prata, a village of São Felix do Jalapão County.
Actually, what is called golden grass (syngonanthus nitens) is the stem of a small white flower from the “always-alive” family. In the flower are found the seeds that guarantee the perpetuation of the plant (native of Jalapão), and income for hundreds of Jalapão families.
In your tour through the Jalapão valley it is worth reserving time to visit a traditional village, Mumbuca, 35 km away from the city of Mateiros. It was in this place, formed in majority by slave descendants, that the much popular handcraft in golden grass emerged.
Follow the skillful hands of women of working Mumbuca the golden grass, producing craft pieces that will be distributed throughout Brazil and in several countries.
Mumbuca has less than 200 residents. There, men and women have very definite roles. Men plant for family consumption, while women reap the production and prepare meals, in addition of course to working as artisans.
Another plant is worth mentioning, as it gave the region its name: Jalapa-do-brasil is a native plant used to cure stomach ailments. Because of its bitter flavor, local inhabitants normally eat it with a piece of bread. That is where the juxtaposition comes from: jalapa-pão (pão is bread in Portuguese).
The animals that can be observed are jaguars, deer, capybaras, foxes, monkeys and small mammals. Besides the common species of the Cerrado fauna, endangered species are the maned wolf, the cougar, the pampas deer and tapir. The regional bird fauna includes species like the macaw, parrot, toucan, rhea, seriema and quero-quero. Among the reptiles you can encounter the sucuri, the jiboiá, the rattlesnake, the chameleon, the tegu and many others.
The Jalapao region is covered with sand, and as a consequence the rivers do not run dry in the dry season and the waters are crystal clear.
The major rivers are: Sono, Balsas, Novo, Galhão, Prata, Soninho, Vermelho, Ponte Alta, Come Assado, Frito Gordo, Caracol.
One of the last rivers of drinking water in the world, Rio Novo has fully crystalline appearance, making vivid the wilderness that surrounds it and the beautiful beaches that are formed along its banks.
Rafting is common in the waters of Rio Novo River. But there is room for other sports such as canoeing, rappelling, cross-buoy (downhill by river’s rapids in individual buoys) and acquaride (where the player is prone on top of the buoy).
It seems like an oasis. Amidst closed vegetation, swamps and streams, there is a place of rare beauty surrounded by banana trees. In its center is a large pool of transparent blue water – in reality, the spring of an underground river. The water that springs from clear sand creates the phenomenon of upwelling, which makes it impossible for the most persistent swimmer to submerge. In a fervedouro, you’ll have fun and get to know the real feeling of lightness.
There are various fervedouros in the region of Mateiros. The most well known fervedouro is near Cachoeira da Formiga.
Waterfalls and cascatas
Fed by the Rio Novo River, the Cacheira da Velha waterfall is the largest of Jalapão and one of its main attractions. There, the waters run in great quantity, falling into two separate falls in the shape of a horseshoe, each of more than 20 meters wide. The falls are an imposing spectacle in which nature shows its exuberance and all its strength.
Right next to the waterfall there is a small beach, of calm freshwater and surrounded by gallery forest. The trail to reach the small beach is an attraction in itself, easy to walk through, with stops on the way for sightseeing and resting.
Access: The road to Triagro Farm, at 101 km from Ponte Alta to Mateiros.
Cachoeira Brejo da Cama
This is in the middle of the plateau, in a hole. The road to Chiquinho Farm, 47 km from Ponte Alta.
Talha do Brejo do Boi, 38 m high, 63 km in direction of Rio da Conceição.
Cachoeira da Fumaça, impressive 45m waterfall, 75 km from Ponte Alta, direction of Rio da Conceição.
Cachoeira do Lajeado. There are a series of steps over which the water runs until forming a 10m high waterfall and natural pool. It is necessary to climb down a stairway of stones, some of which are very slippery. 40 km from Ponte Alta, direction of Mateiros, 2,5 km walking from the main road.
Cachoeira do Resfriado, waterfalls in Ponte Alta
Cachoeiras do Rio Soninho, 20m waterfall, 66 km from Ponte Alta, direction of Rio da Conceição.
Cachoeira São Vicente, nearby Cachoeira Formiga
Cachoeira da Formiga, this is more like a cascata with a pond and famous for its crystalline water. The spring is only 1,5km further. Access: 45 from Materiros in direction of Sao Felix.
Cascata do Prata, nearby Sao Felix
Prainha (small beach) of the Cachoeira da Velha Falls
After enjoying the exuberance of the Cachoeira da Velha falls, it is time to take the trail of approximately one hour that leads to the small beach, a very pleasant place, with shade, calm freshwater, and lush gallery forest.
Camping on the beach is not allowed.
A scenario both unexpected as unforgettable, formed by huge dunes of golden sand (of quartz sand), up to 30 meters in height. Imagine the feeling of walking on the sand contemplating the sunset in the center of a landscape like this!
The dunes of Jalapão are in constant motion, driven by winds. Around it is the Espírito Santo Mountain with sandy formation, which the wind gust causes erosion, thus, creating the dunes.
Access: only by 4×4, 116 km from Ponte Alta, direction of Mateiros, 6 km driving from the main road.
Serra do Espírito Santo
Postcard of the region, Espírito Santo Mountain is an imposing rise, which through the process of erosion (rain and winds), creates the dunes that are formed at its feet.
There is also a gazebo in the mountain, where after an hour of walking toward the summit, you can get a privileged view of the entire region. The top of the mountain is a large flat area, which resembles an immense elevated table. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the landscapes and horizons of Jalapão.
Access: 139 km from Ponte Alta in direction of Mateiros (between the dunes and Mateiros), 30 minutes driving from the main road, then 45 minutes walking.
This green and humid canyon is 60m long and 15m high. It was opened by the water running over the sandstone, thus forming the small canyon and the waterfall. Moss and hundreds of ferns grow along the steep slopes.
Visitors are advised to wear suitable shoes. Access at 14km from Ponte Alta.